IDOLATRY (ī-dŏl'a-trē, Gr. eidōlolatria). Idolatry in ancient times included two forms of departure from the true religion: the worship of false gods, whether by means of images or otherwise; and the worship of the Lord by means of images. All the nations surrounding ancient Israel were idolatrous, though their idolatry assumed different forms. The early Semites of Mesopotamia worshiped mountains, springs, trees, and blocks of stone—things in which the deity was supposed to be in some sense incarnate. A typical example of such wooden representations is the sacred pole or Asherah pole. This was the idol of Gideon’s clan; Gideon destroyed it (
The first clear case of idolatry in the Bible is the account of Rachel stealing her father’s teraphim, which were images of household gods (
The whole of Judges tells of successive apostasies, judgments, and repentances. The narrative concerning Micah (
The prophet Samuel persuaded the people to repent of their sin and to renounce idolatry; but in Solomon’s reign the king himself made compromises that affected disastrously the whole future of the kingdom. Solomon’s wives brought their own heathen gods with them and openly worshiped them. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son by an Ammonite mother, continued the worst features of his father’s idolatry (
Things went somewhat better in the southern kingdom. Hezekiah restored the temple services, which had been abandoned during his father’s reign, but the change was only outward (
In the ritual of idol worship the chief elements were: offering burnt sacrifices (
For an Israelite, idolatry was the most heinous of crimes. In the OT the relation between God and his covenant people is often represented as a marriage bond (
In the NT, references to idolatry are understandably few. The Maccabean war resulted in the Jews becoming fanatically opposed to the crass idolatry of OT times. The Jews were never again tempted to worship images or gods other than the Lord. Jesus, however, warned that to make possessions central in life is also idolatry, and said, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (
A special problem arose for Christians in connection with meat offered to idols (
Bibliography: W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites, 1927; E. Bevan, Holy Images, 1940; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, 1962; T. C. Vriezen, The Religion of Ancient Israel, 1963; H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion, 1966; J. M. Sasson, The Worship of the, 1973.——SB
IDOLATRY (see 2. for chief Heb. words expressing various aspects of idolatry in the OT; in NT, εἰδωλολατρεία, from εἰ̂δος, G1626, that which strikes the eye, is exposed to view, the external appearance). In its broadest sense idolatry is the worship of idols or images.
Idolatry in ancient times.
Ancient man believed that the image was the dwelling place of a superhuman force or being, or was the deity itself. Idols were made of wood, stone, or clay, and sometimes of gold or silver. For the Hebrews, idolatry included the worship of anything other than Jehovah. Rabbinic writers considered idolaters as enemies of Israel. The Talmud says that the three cardinal sins were idolatry, unchastity, and bloodshed. Idolatry was given precedence because it implied a denial of revelation, thus shattering the entire basis of religion and ethics. In the NT, the term was extended to mean obsession with anything to the degree that it took the place of devotion to God.
Idolatry was the embodiment of human desire and thought. Idols, though made in many shapes and sizes, really represented the image of man, for they expressed his thoughts, desires, and purposes. Man’s pride caused him to trust in himself rather than in God, hence his idols were really expressions of self-worship (
Idolatry has been practiced from primitive times. The ancient oriental world was thoroughly polytheistic. Everything that occurred, whether good or bad, was attributed to the gods; for life was not separated into religious and secular categories. Nature and its unexplained forces were prob. the earliest deities worshiped by primitive man. The sun, moon, stars, fire, and lightning were objects of worship; for man could not explain them, and they seemed more powerful than he.
The various gods of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan were known to the Israelites. Babylon exercised greater formative influence upon Heb. religion than either Egypt or Canaan. Even the father of Abraham worshiped other gods (
Ancient Egyptian religion was polytheistic and complex. Though the chief gods were represented in human form, most of the numerous deities were depicted in animal form, such as the crocodile god Sobek and Anubis with the head of a jackal. There were cosmic deities, such as Re, the sun-god. Osiris (the patron of agriculture) and Isis (counterpart of Astarte) were associated with regeneration. There were triads of gods such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. Hieroglyphic inscrs. on obelisks on the tombs give the impression that the Egyptians had thousands of deities. Every aspect of nature, animate and inanimate, was thought to be inhabited by a deity. There was even a merger of gods, such as Amon with Re. The ruler himself was considered to be the incarnation of a god; each one while living assumed the name Horus, the deity who avenged the death of Osiris.
Of particular interest for Biblical studies are the gods of the Canaanites because of the syncretism of Israelite religion with the Canaanite fertility cult. The fertility cults were common to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, but exerted their strongest influence on the Israelites in Canaan. The chief Canaanite deities were El, the creator of the earth and controller of storms, and Ba’al (both symbolized by the bull as indicative of their procreative powers), and the fertility goddess Astarte (Biblical Ashtaroth). She was immensely popular at the temples, and prostitution was a legalized part of the cult. The consort of El was Asherah, the mother goddess (the symbol of fruitfulness). There were many other Canaanite deities, such as Melkart, Koshar (the Vulcan of the Canaanites), and Hauron, the shepherd god. Mot was the god of death and sterility.
The Canaanite religion was particularly dangerous for the Israelites because of its appeal to carnal human desires, esp. sexual. Ba’al and Astarte were associated with fornication and drunkenness. Sacred prostitution and various orgiastic rites characterized the religion. Amos charged that Hebrew participation in these rites profaned the name of God (
Idolatry in the OT.
The worship of idols was an abomination to the protagonists of Heb. monotheism. They condemned as “idolatry” the tendency of the people to adopt the local Canaanite cults. The OT emphasizes that the worst sin was to acknowledge other gods besides Jehovah and to make an image or likeness of the deity. The ban on images was a new concept in the ancient E, even producing a great struggle among the people of Israel, who continually returned to image worship.
A recurring theme in the OT is the ridicule heaped upon those who would make an idol with their hands and then bow down and worship it (
The extent to which the Hebrews participated in the grosser religious practices in pre-Mosaic times can only be a matter of conjecture. It is a safe assumption that the influence of other religions upon them was great.
The prohibition against idolatry found expression in the
Jeroboam, who became ruler of the N tribes that seceded upon the death of Solomon, placed golden calves at Dan and Bethel so that the people would not desire to return to Jerusalem to worship (
A hundred years later, following a succession of kings who “walked in the way of Jeroboam,” Ahab came to the throne of Israel and established the cult of Ba’al of Sidon at Samaria under the influence of his Phoen. wife Jezebel (
Conditions were not much better in Judah as evidenced by the idolatrous practices when Hezekiah came to the throne. The people were worshiping the bronze serpent that Moses had made, so Hezekiah destroyed it (
During the period of the Babylonian captivity, Nebuchadnezzar built a great image and demanded that the people worship it. The refusal of Daniel’s three friends to worship the image would have cost them their lives except for divine intervention (
In the postexilic period, Malachi, Ezra, and Nehemiah violently opposed marriages with foreigners that were taking place. They undoubtedly remembered that such alliances had been denounced in the past and had contributed to the introduction of idolatrous practices that eventually caused God to destroy the nation.
In the 2nd cent. b.c., the Seleucid rulers of Pal. attempted to revive the worship of local fertility gods and the Hel. deities. Epiphanes (175-164 b.c.) issued an edict establishing one religion for all his subjects. He erected an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in the Temple at Jerusalem. He required the Jews to take part in the heathen festivals or be slain. His oppressive measures brought about the Maccabean revolt that resulted in a brief period of religious and political freedom for the Jews.
Idolatry in the NT.
Idolatry is not mentioned as frequently in the NT as in the OT. In the NT, idolatry includes the worship of any gods other than the living and true God. The Christian Church arose in a world given to idolatry, but also out of a Jewish background that maintained a stubborn protest against image worship.
Paul pictures the widespread idolatry of the pagan world (
Why idolatry is condemned in the Bible.
Idolatry is vigorously condemned both in the OT and NT because it degrades both God and man. It denies the existence of the true God who created the world and mankind, and whose glory cannot be adequately captured in any tangible form. It is absurd that a person could carve an idol with his own hands and then be afraid of what he has made. Some religions claim that an image is an aid to worship, though not an object of worship. The danger of such reasoning is that two people may have a different idea of what the image signifies. One person may look upon it as a representation and void of value or power in itself, but another may regard it as the abode of the god and fraught with power, and therefore he will worship the image. A visible representation of the deity tends to restrict a person’s concept of God, for he will base his concept of God, consciously or unconsciously, upon the image or picture. Finally, man becomes like that which he worships (
J. Robertson, The Early, I (1892), 187-268; A. C. Knudson, The Religious Teaching of the (1918), 108-114; W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites (1927); E. Bevan, Holy Images (1940); R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2nd ed. (1950); I. Epstein, “Judaism,” EBr, XIII (1957), 166A; O. J. Baab, The Theology of the Old Testament (1959), 84-113; J. Gray, “Idolatry,” IDB, III (1962), 675-678; T. C. Vriezen, The Religion of Ancient Israel (1963), 22-78; T. W. Overholt, “The Falsehood of Idolatry,” JTS, XVI (1965), 1-12; H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion (1966).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
The special enticements to idolatry as offered by these various cults were found in their deification of natural forces and their appeal to primitive human desires, especially the sexual; also through associations produced by intermarriage and through the appeal to patriotism, when the help of some cruel deity was sought in time of war. Baal and Astarte worship, which was especially attractive, was closely associated with fornication and drunkenness (
See also GOLDEN CALF; GODS; IMAGES; TERAPHIM.
Wm. Wake, A Discourse concerning the Nature of Idolatry, 1688; W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites; E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture; J.G. Frazer, Golden Bough (3 vols); L.R. Farnell, Evolution of Religion, 1905; Baudissin, Studien zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte; Beathgen, Der Gott Israels u. die Gotter der Heiden, 1888.
Camden M. Cobern